Roots (3): Doom
The three games I’m emphasizing in this ‘Roots’ series represent a wide spectrum of styles and methods of design. I was lucky to have these be my first three because now I am familiar with designing on multiple platforms. Let’s quickly run through some of the vernacular we’ve learned so far. With Spacestation Pheta, we ventured into the world of editing a single player, 2D, black & white, single-screen puzzle game on an x/ y-axis grid made for Apple Macintosh computers. For Excitebike, we got to edit an 8-bit color isometric side-scrolling sports game with x-axis design and faux-multiplayer on the NES console. We also got to witness the outcome of binary hacking that the people at Codemasters made possible using the Game Genie. So, to round off the portfolio we need a 3D, 256-color profile, multiplayer first-person shooter with a definite z-axis and a Windows-based external editing program. I think Doom will do the trick!
Level 3: D.C.K.
I think it was in 6th or 7th grade. My friend Kyle had a sweet setup of computers in his house. His parents were network engineers and had the first working network I had ever seen. Kyle was the first person who showed me how to navigate DOS and introduced me to the world of PC gaming. He had already been playing Commander Keen, which was also made by id Software company. So, naturally he got Doom on floppy disk when it came out in ’93 and then Doom II: Hell on Earth in ’94. This was the first 3D multiplayer game for us, and naturally, became quite addicting. ’93 was a great year for gaming, and saw the release of many other 3D titles like Myst and the 7th Guest, which we played on Windows 3.1. But in ’95 the game changed when Windows released its new operating system. Suddenly Doom got a whole lot faster, and we could link our computers over network or phone and play. I still remember tingling as the 14.4bps modem sounds clicked away, planning out the routes in my head to the nearest shotgun. It was truly the dawn of a new era!
If you don’t know what Doom is, it’s okay (I guess). By today’s standards, it is a severely antiquated and limited game engine. However, any level designer…I don’t care if they are a 15 year old modder in their basement or a 60 year old veteran game guru at a major company: they all owe Doom a debt. I’m not going to describe the game here, because it is arguably the most influential and heavily modified of all time. You can easily find wonderful descriptions and videos of gameplay anywhere on the net. Read here, or watch here, and this one’s pretty epic. But, the creators of Doom put control of actual game mechanics and playability into the hands of the community for the first time. Its many editing programs and online database of user-created stuff made it the gateway drug to level design. Many of the amateur designers who modded (slang for modified) the game went on to develop some of the biggest and most well-known game franchises, such as Thief, Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal. The program I used from ’95-’98 was called DCK.
Math, grids, CAD, architecture. Up to this point, I had no idea how much technical skill was required to operate a level editing program of this magnitude. The Doom Construction Kit (DCK) was the real deal. The internet was primitive at best when I started, especially for obtaining obscure knowledge. So, learning DCK was by trial-and-error only. A huge help to the fledgling designer was id Software’s original .wad files (the file extension associated with Doom levels, which stands for Where’s All the Data?). It was easy to get started by opening an existing master level and adding on another room, or a new weapon. That’s how I start with most editors: by exploring an already-polished level. Making brand-new maps was a heavily immersive process and had an extremely high learning curve. As a result, I didn’t have my first completely new deathmatch level finished for nearly 6 months.
The level my friends and I played the most was E1M1: Hangar (see above). It was designed by Doom legend John Romero. Hangar was a relatively small world and deadly simple. At first glance all it had were 6 main rooms and connecting hallways. But upon closer examination, there were pitch black corners, an outdoor arena, elevators, secret walls, hidden balconies, narrow blind corners, stairwells, poisonous pitfalls (nukage), sniper points, and carefully placed bonus items. With this first map, Romero defined the fundamentals of all first-person shooter levels. With that said, it’s not perfect. There are things about Hangar that annoyed the hell out of me, and other things that couldn’t make me stop playing it.
Probably the most annoying thing when you play a deathmatch level for the first time (n00b) is not knowing where things are. Seasoned players, meanwhile, will mow you down relentlessly with the best weapons and armor while camping in hidden nooks of a high-traffic area. Being behind the wheel of an editor, you can either join the dark side (make tons of secret things that only you know about) or try to balance this out (make the hidden stuff have drawbacks). There’s a little of both in this level. Most of the secret stuff is concentrated around the zig-zag room. There are invisible triggers near the end of the level that open up a secret wall with a shotgun and elevator leading to a perfect sniper spot. Without backtracking, you wouldn’t even know they were there. But more importantly, triggering them in deathmatch meant exposing yourself to ambush attacks, or triggering them for your opponent who just happens to be in the right place at the right time to steal the glory. The best part of this area was that the shotgun alcove was just wide enough to hide inside while you waited for the elevator (to the sniper ledge) to lower. If another player had the same idea, you could camp there and pick them off with respawning (a term used to describe items in-game that disappear when collected or killed, but reappear in a specific place after X-amount of time has passed) shotgun amo, then jump into the elevator they triggered for you.
Programming in distant triggers and time delays for secrets was one way to balance out the advantage that finding them gave. Another way was to place limitations on exits. The outdoor arena contained a valuable armor item, but the only way in or out was a narrow stairwell with a blind corner. Also, the armor item was surrounded by nukage in a large open courtyard with windows. One of my major beefs with this layout was the lack of an escape route. In a deathmatch level, each room should have a separate in and an out so it doesn’t bottleneck the flow of the level. The only exception is if the value of the item outweighs the risk of being caught in a dead end. The armor wasn’t enough to do that, but luckily in multiplayer mode, they added a rocket launcher. Another beef I had with Doom deathmatch was the need for an exit switch in every level. There is nothing worse than having your fragfest interrupted by some noob accidentally triggering the exit switch. Some designers went so far as to put the exit switch a mile up on an elevator that took over a minute to lower. Anyone bold enough to stand in the same place for that long guarding a stupid elevator deserved to reach it! Another unfortunate decision was to disable the use of keycards in deathmatch. It would have made nice bounty to frag the key to the room with a BFG9000 off someone.
My best complete level made in DCK was called “The Facility.” Not to say I didn’t make other successful designs, but this one saw the most playtime. Unfortunately, I have no images to show because the file was lost on my ex-ex-ex-ex computer’s harddrive, R.I.P. But, I can describe the basics. The Facility’s motif was based on a level from 007: Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 by the same name (in my opinion one of the greatest multiplayer deathmatch levels ever made). I attempted to capture the feel of it by using an industrial tech theme of skins (wall, floor, and ceiling textures) that looked like brushed aluminum, tiles, and concrete. The space was laid out like the inside of a sterile factory, with catwalks, large holding tanks, lifts, stairwells and balconies. It had very few doors–only to separate long hallways that saw too many visible polygons for the game to run smoothly. The level was fun because it housed every weapon in the game, and they were held in an array of triggers, teleports, and lifts that made them difficult to get.
The layout was completely different, however. I made judicious use of z-space, making multiple levels visible in large rooms. Too many WAD designs focused on series’ of interconnected one-story rooms. By having one or two big, tall, centralized rooms with the smaller ones attached, you would guarantee that players would collide, rather than wander around trying find each other. Tall rooms were difficult in DCK because though there was a z-axis, two rooms couldn’t inhabit the same sector on the bird’s eye grid. English: you can’t have rooms on top of one another. There were tricks you could employ to make it seem real, and The Facility had a few. The one I remember using was a teleporter in and out of a closed room containing the plasma gun. I did it this way because the room couldn’t actually exist where I wanted it. Instead the room existed off-grid somewhere, but the transition seemed real enough in-game. You could also make gaps narrow enough to run over on the second floor, and just wide enough to walk through on the first floor. Your player character didn’t have the ability to jump (yet). But if you ran, you could clear the gaps without falling.
DCK was an interesting sculptural tool. It wasn’t really additive or subtractive in nature. Other 3D level editors subtract or add chunks to an infinite void/solid. Imagine a big brick of clay and ripping chunks off (subtractive) or slapping new ones on (additive). This program was more like spreading open portions of an infinite seam between two solids. Imagine a key going into a lock, the pins on top and bottom spread open as the key is pushed into the seam. Likewise, the shapes you drew in the editor opened up that portion of the seam to whatever ceiling and floor height you chose. So each room is essentially the space between one infinitely tall and one infinitely deep column. Walls were merely the sides of the adjacent columns that hadn’t been spread open.
Every nuance of the program isn’t important because this is not a tutorial. But it was there, and at the right time. Looking back on it now, after almost 15 years, the basic mechanics still hold up. I’m actually surprised that I was able to stick with it back then, without the internet to research every syntax error, bad build, or load crash. Somehow I stumbled my way through it–a thing that would be almost impossible to do with modern editors. But DCK was a stepping stone to larger, more complex editing programs and 3-dimensional game design. It allowed me some creative freedom to play with architecture and grids, tracing out hundreds of proposed floor plans on graph paper. I’m currently trying to design a new Doom level for myself on my laptop now that I’ve been able to reinstall DCK. I’ll be sure to show it off when it’s finished. As for my Roots, unfortunately the fruits of those labors will remain lost in time and memory. But the experience shows in later work, which I will share with you all in posts to come.
End Part 3: Doom.